In the special observation dome of the colossal command ship just beyond Pluto, every nervous clearing of a throat rasped through the silence. Telescopes were available but most of the scientists and high officials preferred the view on the huge telescreen.
This showed, from a distance of several million miles, one of the small moons of the frigid planet, so insignificant that it had not been discovered until man had pushed the boundaries of space exploration past the asteroids. The satellite was about to become spectacularly significant, however, as the first target of man’s newest, most destructive weapon.
“I need not remind you, gentlemen,” white-haired Co-ordinator Evora of Mars had said, “that if we have actually succeeded in this race against our former Centaurian colonies, it may well prevent the imminent conflict entirely. In a few moments we shall know whether our scientists have developed a truly irresistible weapon.”
Of all the officials, soldiers, and scientists present, Arnold Gibson was perhaps the least excited. For one thing, he had labored hard to make the new horror succeed and felt reasonably confident that it would. The project had been given the attention of every first-class scientific mind in the Solar System; for the great fear was that the new states on the Centaurian planets might win the race of discovery and...
And bring a little order into this old-fashioned, inefficient fumbling toward progress, Gibson thought contemptuously. Look at them--fools for all their degrees and titles! They’ve stumbled on something with possibilities beyond their confused powers of application.
A gasp rustled through the chamber, followed by an even more awed silence than had preceded the unbelievable, ultra-rapid action on the telescreen. Gibson permitted himself a tight smile of satisfaction.
Now my work really begins, he reflected.
A few quick steps brought him to Dr. Haas, director of the project, just before the less stunned observers surrounded that gentleman, babbling questions.
“I’ll start collecting the Number Three string of recorders,” he reported.
“All right, Arnold,” agreed Haas. “Tell the others to get their ships out too. I’ll be busy here.”
Not half as busy as you will be in about a day, thought Gibson, heading for the spaceship berths.
He had arranged to be assigned the recording machines drifting in space at the greatest distance from the command ship. The others would assume that he needed more time to locate and retrieve the apparatus--which would give him a head start toward Alpha Centauri.
His ship was not large, but it was powerful and versatile to cope with any emergency that may have been encountered during the dangerous tests. Gibson watched his instruments carefully for signs of pursuit until he had put a few million miles between himself and the command ship. Then he eased his craft into subspace drive and relaxed his vigilance.
He returned to normal space many “days” later in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. They may have attempted to follow him for all he knew, but it hardly mattered by then. He broadcast the recognition signal he had been given to memorize long ago, when he had volunteered his services to the new states. Then he headed for the capital planet, Nessus. Long before reaching it, he acquired a lowering escort of warcraft, but he was permitted to land.
“Well, well, it’s young Gibson!” the Chairman of Nessus greeted him, after the newcomer had passed through the exhaustive screening designed to protect the elaborate underground headquarters. “I trust you have news for us, my boy. Watch outside the door, Colonel!”
One of the ostentatiously armed guards stepped outside and closed the door as Gibson greeted the obese man sitting across the button-studded expanse of desk. The scientist was under no illusion as to the vagueness of the title “Chairman.” He was facing the absolute power of the Centaurian planets--which, in a few months’ time, would be the same as saying the ruler of all the human race in both systems. Gibson’s file must have been available on the Chairman’s desk telescreen within minutes of the reception of his recognition signal. He felt a thrill of admiration for the efficiency of the new states and their system of government.
He made it his business to report briefly and accurately, trusting that the plain facts of his feat would attract suitable recognition. They did. Chairman Diamond’s sharp blue eyes glinted out of the fat mask of his features.
“Well done, my boy!” he grunted, with a joviality he did not bother trying to make sound overly sincere. “So they have it! You must see our men immediately, and point out where they have gone wrong. You may leave it to me to decide who has gone wrong!”
Arnold Gibson shivered involuntarily before reminding himself that he had seen the correct answer proved before his eyes. He had stood there and watched--more, he had worked with them all his adult life--and he was the last whom the muddled fools would have suspected.
The officer outside the door, Colonel Korman, was recalled and given orders to escort Gibson to the secret state laboratories. He glanced briefly at the scientist when they had been let out through the complicated system of safeguards.
“We have to go to the second moon,” he said expressionlessly. “Better sleep all you can on the way. Once you’re there, the Chairman will be impatient for results!”
Gibson was glad, after they had landed on the satellite, that he had taken the advice. He was led from one underground lab to another, to compare Centaurian developments with Solarian. Finally, Colonel Korman appeared to extricate him, giving curt answers to such researchers as still had questions.
“Whew! Glad you got me out!” Gibson thanked him. “They’ve been picking my brain for two days straight!”
“I hope you can stay awake,” retorted Korman with no outward sign of sympathy. “If you think you can’t, say so now. I’ll have them give you another shot. The Chairman is calling on the telescreen.”
Jealous snob! he thought. Typical military fathead, and he knows I amount to more than any little colonel now. I was smart enough to fool all the so-called brains of the Solar System.
“I’ll stay awake,” he said shortly.
Chairman Diamond’s shiny features appeared on the screen soon after Korman reported his charge ready.
“Speak freely,” he ordered Gibson. “This beam is so tight and scrambled that no prying jackass could even tell that it is communication. Have you set us straight?”
“Yes, Your Excellency,” replied Gibson. “I merely pointed out which of several methods the Solarians got to yield results. Your--our scientists were working on all possibilities, so it would have been only a matter of time.”
“Which you have saved us,” said Chairman Diamond. His ice-blue eyes glinted again. “I wish I could have seen the faces of Haas and Co-ordinator Evora, and the rest. You fooled them completely!”
Gibson glowed at the rare praise.
“I dislike bragging, Your Excellency,” he said, “but they are fools. I might very well have found the answer without them, once they had collected the data. My success shows what intelligence, well-directed after the manner of the new states of Centauri, can accomplish against inefficiency.”
The Chairman’s expression, masked by the fat of his face, nevertheless approached a smile.
“So you would say that you--one of our sympathizers--were actually the most intelligent worker they had?”
He’ll have his little joke, thought Gibson, and I’ll let him put it over. Then, even that sour colonel will laugh with us, and the Chairman will hint about what post I’ll get as a reward. I wouldn’t mind being in charge--old Haas’ opposite number at this end.
“I think I might indeed be permitted to boast of that much ability, Your Excellency,” he answered, putting on what he hoped was an expectant smile. “Although, considering the Solarians, that is not saying much.”
The little joke did not develop precisely as anticipated.
“Unfortunately,” Chairman Diamond said, maintaining his smile throughout, “wisdom should never be confused with intelligence.”
Gibson waited, feeling his own smile stiffen as he wondered what could be going wrong. Surely, they could not doubt his loyalty! A hasty glance at Colonel Korman revealed no expression on the military facade affected by that gentleman.